ACLU is cautiously optimistic about efforts with homeless at Rio Grande

Posted at 2:58 PM, Oct 04, 2016
and last updated 2016-10-04 16:58:12-04

SALT LAKE CITY - Overnight, authorities carried out phase two of Operation Diversion which began last week.

It is an unprecedented attempt to deal with the issues regarding homelessness, drug dealing, drug addiction and mental health issues in the Rio grande district.

It is an unprecedented attempt to deal with the issues regarding homelessness, drug dealing, drug addiction and mental health issues in the Rio Grande District.

Working with Salt Lake City and County funding, Unified Police, Salt Lake Police, the district attorney's office and behavioral health experts are all collaborating on this effort.

Between Monday night and last week, nearly 90 people were taken into custody around the homeless shelter.

Those who had outstanding warrants or were perceived to be predatory drug dealers went to jail.

Others who appeared to be suffering from a combination of addiction and mental health issues were brought to a processing center, given a thorough screening and then offered an option for treatment and to make a potentially life-altering decision.

DA Sim Gill said the actions are within everyone's Constitutional rights.

Representatives from the ACLU went along on the exercise Monday night.

ACLU officials said they are cautiously optimistic about Operation Diversion and hope it will make a positive difference in the Rio Grande District.

Sheriff Winder said nearly 90 people have been rounded up so far; about half went to jail and the other half made the initial steps towards seeking treatment and staying out of the criminal justice system.

The ACLU of Utah sent Fox 13 News this statement:

The ACLU of Utah has observed with great interest and some concern the launch of “Operation

Diversion” last week in downtown Salt Lake City. We were not consulted by any of the participating

government agencies or private providers before this operation was initiated. However, members of

the ACLU of Utah staff have been allowed to observe several aspects of “Operation Diversion” since

this effort was launched.

“Operation Diversion” resembles other novel multi-agency approaches utilized in cities across the

country, which have been previously praised by the ACLU of Utah as an improvement upon

traditional drug enforcement operations.

To date, the ACLU of Utah has received no complaints from individuals arrested during “Operation

Diversion.” Additionally, community activists with whom we work have passed along no complaints,

either from targeted individuals or non-targeted community members living on the streets in the Rio

Grande area, of poor treatment by law enforcement representatives during the operation.

To our knowledge, there was no “invasion” of the Rio Grande/Pioneer Park area by local law

enforcement, nor indiscriminate “sweeping up” of people living or socializing in that area. Rather,

we witnessed multiple targeted arrests of individuals who were observed purchasing or selling

drugs. These arrests were conducted by easily-identified uniformed police officers, who wore no

obvious special tactical gear. While the ACLU of Utah has principled objections to the criminalization

of drug use, we have no specific reason to believe that these arrests were particularly problematic

beyond the usual drug arrests one might witness on an average day. To our knowledge, people living

in or frequenting the area who were not the subject of these targeted arrests, were not “rousted” or

harassed or otherwise interfered with by police officers.

The tactics employed during “Operation Diversion” do not appear to differ significantly from those

that might be employed during a standard drug enforcement operation. Individuals targeted in this

operation appear to have been afforded the same due process rights that they might expect during

the course of a normal arrest for drug-related activities.

Notably, however, “Operation Diversion” does appear to be offering targeted individuals the

opportunity to pursue immediate treatment opportunities for issues stemming from substance use

disorder or mental illness. Open treatment beds have been made available through local providers,

and paid for with public funding, to ensure that willing participants can begin treatment immediately.

Normally, treatment might be ordered as part of the sentencing process, or as a condition of

probation or parole. It is not always possible for individuals to achieve treatment even when ordered

by a judge, due to financial difficulties or limited treatment bed availability. “Operation Diversion”

appears to offer more assistance in realizing immediate and accessible treatment than is normally

available through a typical arrest process.

The ACLU of Utah can confirm that most individuals arrested during “Operation Diversion” are being

processed at a well-staffed receiving center where public defenders, case workers and correctional

professionals are all present. As far as we have witnessed, community members being processed

through this receiving center are being treated both humanely and fairly by Salt Lake County staff.

While the ACLU of Utah continues to be troubled by the processing of self-medicating mentally ill

people and people struggling with addiction through the criminal justice system, we recognize that

“Operation Diversion” is a good-faith effort to begin to address substance use disorder as a public

health issue rather than a law enforcement responsibility. In the coming months, we intend to

monitor the implementation of “Operation Diversion” beyond these initial law enforcement actions,

as prosecutions of arrested individuals proceed. We encourage the public to pay attention, as well.

We hope that multiple opportunities will be afforded for arrested/diverted community members to

pursue treatment without prosecution, even if treatment is not immediately successful.

We are encouraged that Salt Lake City and Salt Lake County, with support from the state, are

pursuing strategic ways of addressing access to housing in the long term, rather than criminalizing

the status of homeless and poor people living in downtown Salt Lake City. We hope that our

government agencies will also work to address substance use disorder and other mental illness

strategically, as a public health issue, rather than simply jailing people who need help.

We request that anyone who has been personally impacted by or involved in Operation Diversion, and

who has related complaints, to please share their experiences with us through the normal ACLU of

Utah complaint process via our website at